Hours ago, in the latest sign that tensions between Riyadh and Tehran are set to spiral into a full blown diplomatic crisis of historic proportions, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Ahmad Al-Jubeir announced that the kingdom has cut diplomatic ties with the Iranians. The Iran mission was ordered to leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours.
Al-Jubeir went on to accuse Iran of stoking sectarian violence in the region (a contention that represents the worst kind of hypocrisy) and suggested Riyadh may need to do more to counter the expansion of Iranian influence.
As we put it, this an exceptionally serious situation that could well mushroom into a direct conflict between the two countries which are already on opposite sides of multiple regional proxy wars.
Washington is caught in the middle. Saudi Arabia and the US have a “special” relationship that neither side is keen on damaging while the Obama administration has been walking on egg shells vis-a-vis the Iranians in order to ensure that the “historic” nuclear accord doesn’t end up falling apart in Obama’s last year in The White House.
On Sunday, Washington responded to Saudi Arabia's decision to cut diplomatic ties with Iran by encouraging diplomatic engagement and calling for leaders throughout the region to take "affirmative steps" to reduce tensions, Reuters reports.
"We're aware of reports that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has ordered the closure of Iranian diplomatic missions in the Kingdom," an Obama administration official said.
"We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in working through differences and we will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions."
Not to put too fine a point on it, but when it comes to sectarian tensions, the Saudis really don’t care what Washington thinks. Here’s the latest out of Riyadh:
- SAUDI DIPLOMATS EVACUATED FROM IRAN AFTER EMBASSY ATTACK ARRIVE IN DUBAI ON WAY HOME-AL ARABIYA TV
- SAUDI ARABIA DOES NOT CARE IF IT HAS ANGERED THE WHITE HOUSE, SOURCE FAMILIAR WITH SAUDI GOVERNMENT'S THINKING SAYS: RTRS
- SAUDI ARABIA'S POSITION TOWARD IRAN IS 'ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,' SOURCE FAMILIAR WITH SAUDI GOVERNMENT'S THINKING SAYS: RTRS
Make no mistake, this dispute is going to get far worse before it gets better which means the Obama administration will have to make a choice: stick with the Saudis in order to preserve the prevailing Mid-East order and ensure that the "special" relationship between Washington and Riyadh isn't damaged, or finally take the plunge and side with the Iranians with whom the administration is desperate to establish a cordial relationship after years of mutual distrust and hostility.
This also comes at a decidedly inopportune time as the White House weighs whether or not to impose a fresh set of sanctions on Tehran in response to the test-firing of a next generation surface-to-surface missile back in October. Now, any new sanctions will likely be viewed by the Iranians as a kind of underhanded way of supporting the Saudi position.
Needless to say, all of this has implications for the mutliple regional proxy wars unfolding across the Mid-East.
Finally, don't forget that the Saudis are a major buyer of US arms and contributed mightily to a 35% increase in foreign arms sales in 2014.